Category Archives: psychology

The Spell of the Sensuous

The Spell of the SensuousFor those of us who care for an earth not encompassed by machines – a world of textures, tastes and sounds other than those that we have engineered – our task is that of taking up the written word, with all its potency, and patiently, carefully writing language back into the land. Our craft is that of releasing the budded, earthly intelligence of our words, freeing them to respond to the speech of the things themselves – to the green uttering-forth of leaves from the spring branches. It is the practice of spinning stories that have the rhythm and lilt of the local soundscape, tales for the tongue, tales that want to be told, again and again, sliding off the digital screen and slipping off the lettered page to inhabit these coastal forests, those desert canyons, those whispering grasslands and valleys and swamps. Finding phrases that place us in contact with the trembling neck-muscles of a deer holding its antlers high as it swims toward the mainland, or onto the ant dragging a scavenged rice-grain through the grasses. Planting words, like seeds, under rocks and fallen logs – letting language take root, once again, in the earthen silence of shadow and bone and leaf.

The rain surrounded the cabin…with a whole world of meaning, of secrecy, of rumor. Think of it: all that speech pouring down, selling nothing, judging nobody, drenching the thick mulch of dead leaves, soaking the trees, filling the gullies and crannies of the wood with water, washing out the places where men have stripped the hillside…Nobody started it, nobody is going to stop it. It will talk as long as it wants, the rain. As long as it talks, I am going to listen.
~~ Thomas Merton

Our strictly human heavens and hells have only recently been abstracted from the sensuous world that surrounds us, from this more-than-human realm that abounds in its own winged intelligences and cloven-hoofed powers. For almost all oral cultures, the enveloping and sensuous earth remains the dwelling place of both the living and the dead. The “body” – whether human or otherwise – is not yet a mechanical object in such cultures, but is a magical entity, the mind’s own sensuous aspect, and at death the body’s decomposition into soil, worms and dust can only signify the gradual reintegration of one’s ancestors and elders into the living landscape, from which all, too, are born.

This cycling of the human back into the larger world ensures that the other forms of experience that we encounter – whether ants, or willow trees, or clouds – are never absolutely alien to ourselves. It is, paradoxically, this perceived kinship that renders the difference, or otherness, so eerily potent.

Gradually, then, our senses awaken to the world. We become aware of the thoughts that are thinking all around us – in the bushes, under the tumbled stones. As we watch the crows, our own limbs begin to feel the intelligence of feathered muscles adjusting to the wind. Our toes listen to roots sending capillaries in search of water, and our skin replies to the lichens radiating in slow waves across the surface of the upthrust bones of the hill. Walking along the pebbled beach, we notice the ground itself responding to our footfalls – the hermit crabs all diving for cover – and sense the many-voiced forest listening to us as we speak. And so we adjust our own speaking, taking new care with our gestures and actions…

Ah, not to be cut off,
not through the slightest partition
shut out from the law of the stars.
The inner – what is it?
if not intensified sky,
hurled through with birds and deep
with the winds of homecoming
~~ Rainer Maria Rilke

Excerpted from The Spell of the Sensuous, by David Abram.

A brief summary of animism at Anthropik.

Temple Grandin Goes to Hollywood

Claire DanesAsperger’s Syndrome, a disorder in the autism spectrum first identified in 1944 by an Austrian pediatrician, Hans Asperger, has become a popular dramatic plot device in television shows such as House, Bones, Law & Order and Degrassi: The Next Generation. It defined the fascinating profile of the literary protagonists in Mark Haddon’s 2003 award-winning novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, and in Stieg Larsson’s 2008 posthumous work, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Now Claire Danes is pegged to play the role of Temple Grandin, in an HBO movie to be released in 2010.

Some people might think if I could snap my fingers I’d choose to be ‘normal. But, I wouldn’t want to give up my ability to see in beautiful, precise pictures.
~~ Temple Grandin

Grandin overcame the limitations imposed by the disorder to become a top scientist in the field of humane livestock handling.

High school was especially harsh for Grandin, who was called “tape recorder” by other kids because she repeated things over and over, and she was hypersensitive to many forms of sensory stimulation. She eventually graduated with degrees from several universities, going on to write influential essays on animal welfare and designing humane slaughterhouses. She appears regularly on the news talk show circuit and was the subject of a BBC documentary, The Woman Who Thinks Like a Cow, and Errol Morris’ First Person: Stairway to Heaven.

In part, the fascination with Asperger’s is due to the growing social acceptance of neuro-diversity – a buzzword that aims to promote an awareness that not all brains are similarly wired. Many of the books about the disorder have been written since the 1990s, and along with that interest has come a revisionist diagnosis of many creative and scientific geniuses.

The ascendancy of Asperger’s as a popular fictional device or “It Disability,” as some have called it, is partly due to the fact that patients often present as “normal,” except for their social awkwardness and obsessive interests.

Hollywood likes to portray them as tragically misunderstood and endearingly eccentric.

“Any kind of awareness in the mainstream culture is good, I suppose. But it’s a double-edged sword. You have to ensure that it doesn’t negate the severity of the problem,” says Margot Nelles, founder of the Aspergers Society of Ontario.

Aspergers: Separating Reality from Hollywood.

Voyage to the Spirit Mountains

Author and musician, Paul Quarrington, diagnosed with stage four lung cancer, eloquently describes his plans to live each day as though it is his last, connecting with singing and the Canadian landscape.

Torngat Mountains

“As we journeyed through the Torngat Mountains, I finally realized what this trip was all about, for me. First of all, let me get a little scientific on you. The Torngats-comprised of Precambrian gneisses-are amongst the oldest mountains in the world, almost four billions years old. They rise out of the water with enchanted austerity. Sitting well above the tree line, the Torngats are stark naked and make no apology about it. Torngat is an Inuktitut word meaning Place of Spirits, and it very clearly is. The mountaintops are usually shrouded in cloud, and it’s easy enough to imagine the Spirits assembling there, going through the itinerary for another year. In short, the Torngat Mountains took what little breath I have away from me. The thought occurred that I was on another planet, and that’s when I realized, no, I’m on this planet, I’m just none too clear on what it actually looks like. I realized that what I wanted to do was spend a little time getting to know the third stone from the sun; it has been my home for 56 years, but I have spent much of it confined in the settlements. I wanted to explore and examine, I wanted to interact – yes, in the broadest, most spiritual sense.”

“So there, basically, you have the two main components of my plan for (what remains of) my future: singing and (spiritual) mountain climbing. For example, I think I’ll go fishing this week, getting to know Mother Ship Earth a bit better. I think I’ll go stand in a river just a few degrees above freezing and toss a yarn-fly into the current, over and over again, in the hopes of convincing some chromium-silver steelhead that the thing is edible. Or, I may simply go walkabout, kicking stones and major rock formations. I will build inuksuit (did you know that was the plural? I learned a lot on my voyages…) and I will try to build them across as much of the landscape as I can. In the meantime, I will be singing, all manner of songs. I will sing in Porkbelly Futures, I will sing with fiddlers and button accordionists, I will sing in Gospel choirs and Glee Clubs.”

Torngat Mountains

Inuit mythology tells of the Torngait, the spirits that a Shaman or spiritual leader looks to for wisdom and power. Torngat comes from this Inuit name and the legends which hold that in this region the spirit world overlaps our own. White people have called this area the Ghost Coast and have commented how the sounds of the winds whistling through the rugged mountains bring forth the feeling that one is in another realm. If the earth is home to ancient spirits they would seek out this land where the rocks are among the oldest on the planet and the landforms hold an otherworldly appearance. Perhaps this truly is a place of spirits.

The Torngat Mountains National Park Reserve is the new name for this ancient place. It is the northern portion of the Inuit homeland of Nunatsiavut, located in northern Labrador. (Nunatsiavut means “Our beautiful land” in Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit.) The park reserve encompasses roughly 10,000 km2 and extends from the deep waters of Saglek Fjord in the south, to the very northern tip of Labrador; and from the boundary with Quebec in the west, to the waters of the Labrador Sea in the east.

The human history of the park is rich and ancient. Within the park there are hundreds of archaeological sites including tent rings, stone caribou fences, caches, and ancient graves, all of which tell the story of the peoples and cultures, particularly the Inuit, who have made this special landscape their home.

Ramah Chert

South of Nachvak Fjord is Ramah Bay, home to a unique translucent stone called Ramah chert. This mineral holds an edge that is sharper than surgical steel. It was so prized by the ancient peoples of Labrador that prior to contact with the Europeans, some used this mineral almost exclusively in their arrows and blades.

Paul Quarrington: Each Day Like It’s My Last at National Post.

More at Wanderbird Expedition Cruises.

Ramah Chert.

For Sydney, and for Linda Gordon who loves the landscape.

Animals Make Us Human

Animals Make Us HumanTemple Grandin’s Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior occupies a special place among the animal books of the last few decades. Grandin’s autism gives her a special understanding of what animals, whether house cats or cattle, think, feel and — perhaps most important — desire. There is a revelation on almost every page, and Grandin’s prose (she wrote with Catherine Johnson) is ungainly in the best possible way: blunt, sweet, off-kilter and often quite funny.

Grandin’s new book, Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals, also written with Johnson, picks up where Animals in Translation left off. It has a slightly different focus: she concentrates this time on the emotional rather than the physical life of animals, although the two are clearly related.

Grandin bases many of her observations in Animals Make Us Human on the work of Washington State University neuroscientist, Jaak Panksepp, who identified a series of core emotion systems in animals: seeking, play, care and lust (on the positive side) and fear, panic and rage (on the negative).

“The rule is simple,” she writes. “Don’t stimulate rage, fear and panic if you can help it, and do stimulate seeking and also play.”

There are provocative chapters here on dogs (she quibbles with some of the alpha-male ideas of Cesar Millan, television’s “Dog Whisperer”) and cats. Grandin is at her best, however, when she is talking about animals like cows, pigs, horses and chickens, as well as wild animals and those in zoos.

Grandin has designed humane and stress-free slaughter systems that are used now to process about half of all the cattle in the United States and Canada. There is some cognitive dissonance here. She is often asked “How can you care about animals when you design slaughter plants?”

Her reply is that “some people think death is the most terrible thing that can happen to an animal.” She argues that “the most important thing for an animal is the quality of its life.”

She adds: “The more I observe and learn about how dogs are kept today, I am more convinced that many cattle have better lives than some of the pampered pets. Too many dogs are alone all day with no human or dog companions.”

She worries about the “totally adversarial” relationship between animal advocacy groups and the livestock industry. She has kind words for companies like McDonald’s and Wendy’s (she has consulted for both), which are forcing their suppliers to treat animals more humanely. But she also praises activists. “The big companies are like steel, and activists are like heat. Activists soften the steel, and then I can bend it into pretty grillwork and make reforms.”

One of the major points in Animals Make Us Human is the importance of hiring and training good people to work with livestock. Strong, caring managers are needed; bullying and sadistic employees should be fired; and because turnover in these industries is high, constant training and retraining are necessary, as well as constant auditing from the outside.

Grandin is in favor of almost total openness — she’s among the writers who believe that slaughterhouses should have glass walls. “No animal should spend its last conscious moments in a state of terror,” she writes, and any visitor should be able to observe that they do not.

She loves solid, declarative sentences: “Cattle hate being yelled at”; “Pigs are obsessed with straw”; “Cows like to learn new things.”

We’re lucky to have Temple Grandin.

She has already written one very fine memoir, Thinking in Pictures . Human beings can often be made to feel like cattle, especially in large cities. What would she have to say about subways, housing projects, stadiums, prisons, office cubicles, long-distance buses, shelters for the homeless, elevators or the security line at an airport? What are her thoughts about urban planning in general?

This blogger would love to know.

Full review by Dwight Garner at New York Times, January 20, 2009.

Helvetica

HelveticaHelvetica is a feature-length independent film about typography, graphic design and global visual culture. It looks at the proliferation of one typeface (which celebrated its 50th birthday in 2007) as part of a larger conversation about the way type affects our lives. The film is an exploration of urban spaces in major cities and the type that inhabits them, and a fluid discussion with renowned designers about their work, the creative process, and the choices and aesthetics behind their use of type. The film had its world premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival in March 2007.

Helvetica encompasses the worlds of design, advertising, psychology, and communication, and invites us to take a second look at the thousands of words we see every day.

HelveticaHelvetica was developed by Max Miedinger with Edüard Hoffmann in 1957 for the Haas Type Foundry in Münchenstein, Switzerland. In the late 1950s, the European design world saw a revival of older sans-serif typefaces such as the German face Akzidenz Grotesk. Haas’ director Hoffmann commissioned Miedinger, a former employee and freelance designer, to draw an updated sans-serif typeface to add to their line. The result was called Neue Haas Grotesk, but its name was later changed to Helvetica, derived from Helvetia, the Latin name for Switzerland, when Haas’ German parent companies Stempel and Linotype began marketing the font internationally in 1961.

Introduced amidst a wave of popularity of Swiss design, and fueled by advertising agencies selling this new design style to their clients, Helvetica quickly appeared in corporate logos, signage for transportation systems, fine art prints, and myriad other uses worldwide. Inclusion of the font in home computer systems such as the Apple Macintosh in 1984 only further cemented its ubiquity.

More about the film.

What font are you? Take the quiz!

This blogger is Times New Roman.

Hotel of the Saints

Hotel of the SaintsA dying dog, a pair of doves, blindness and an old hotel feature in eleven deceptively light tales of isolation in Ursula Hegi’s Hotel of the Saints, a collection that spans about twelve years of Hegi’s short fiction. These are stories of ordinary people leading lives of quiet desperation, estranged from society, from relatives, sometimes from themselves,. They are left to forge an uneasy peace with a sorrow-tinged existence.

In the title piece, Lenny, a seminary student trying to find his faith, helps his frail and incapable Aunt Jocelyn overhaul her newly inherited Hotel of the Saints after the death of her husband. The old hotel rooms come alive as sunny Mediterranean colours and whimsical themes replace the drab greyness, and Aunt Jocelyn and Lenny are transformed.

It always comes back to sitting alone at a desk,” she said. “I do between 50 and 100 revisions. So the way I used to write is the way I still write.

In The Juggler, a mother tries to protect her daughter from marrying a man who is going blind. The mother’s anxiety about her child quickly leads to conflict about the nature of their relationship and what it means to rely on another too much.

I do it to really go very deeply into the characters to understand the characters, to explore the characters. And a lot has to do with language. I write fiction as if I were writing poetry.

In one of the briefest but most powerful stories, titled The End of All Sadness, Hegi gives voice to an abused woman who finds a place of peace amid a life of violence. A single mother brings home a man who’s been sleeping on the ground by the pond. She marries him after he hits her for smiling at the postman. In her strange euphoria, she has no space even for her daughter.

After I’ve written a story, after I’ve gone through it 50 or 100 times, each time I feel those feelings. I go through that experience with the character. And after I have finished the story, on an emotional level, it has become my experience, and I am altered.

Ursula HegiIn Doves, a quiet, lonely single woman finds herself in a country bar. “A lean-hipped man asks her to dance, and as she sways in his arms on the floor that’s spun of sawdust and boot prints, she becomes the woman in every song that the men on the platform sing: the woman who leaves them; the woman who keeps breaking their hearts.”

The woman with the dying dog in Lower Crossing comes to realize that she keeps herself busy with trips to the local cafe, work in her plant shop, living with her middle-aged sister, and occasionally picking up men at the hardware store, as a way of coping with the loss of her best friend.

Ursula Hegi is the author of five novels: Intrusions (Viking Press, 1981), Floating In My Mother’s Palm (Poseidon Press/ Simon and Schuster, 1995), Stones from the River (Poseidon Press/ Simon and Schuster, 1995), Salt Dancers (Simon and Schuster, 2001), and The Vision of Emma Blau (Simon and Schuster, 2001). She has also published nonfiction, as well as two collections of stories, Unearned Pleasures (Scribner Paperback, 1995) and Hotel of the Saints, (Simon & Schuster, 2001).

Stupeur et Tremblements

Stupeur et TremblementsJapan beckons, alluring and elusive; foreigners pay court, but their attentions often remain unrequited. The relationship between Japan and the foreign suitor — a dance of seduction, misunderstanding and rejection — has inspired its own literary subgenre.

In Amélie Nothomb’s Stupeur et Tremblements (Fear and Trembling), the protagonist is excluded because she are foreign and typecast because she is a woman. The novel offers a grim, sometimes mordantly funny, vision of a Japan that seems determined to keep outsiders outside — where they belong.

When well-meaning but all too often obtuse Westerners bump up against Japanese standards, the comedy in this novel — and its underlying sadness — emerges. Stupeur et Tremblements takes place at the headquarters of a Japanese corporation in Tokyo.

Elegantly written (as translated from the French by Adriana Hunter) and now — elegantly filmed — it is a chronicle of the startlingly rapid fall of a young Belgian who tries to find a place in a Japanese company. Amélie, the heroine, is a child of foreign diplomats who spent her early years in Japan and so is fluent in Japanese. But it is soon clear that she is hapless when it comes to translating what isn’t said.

She fails her first test: understanding a lesson in humility that her boss tries to teach her by repeatedly tearing up an assignment without telling her what she’s done wrong. Amélie stumbles again when she takes the initiative by performing a task that hasn’t been assigned to her. Yet her fatal error is more deeply personal: failing to understand the psychology of the beautiful, brilliant and underappreciated Fubuki Mori, the woman who is her immediate superior. Amélie senses Fubuki’s desperate wish to be married — achieving a status that would free her from the tyranny of the company but confine her in a different sphere.

Amélie doesn’t see that her own success may be a threat to a woman who has labored for years to attain what little status she has in a country where women are often denied opportunities for promotion. And then she makes the classic Western mistake of attempting to talk over a problem with Fubuki rather than finding unspoken ways to make amends. Matters become even more complicated after she clumsily tries to offer sympathy when Fubuki is rebuked by her own boss. By witnessing Fubuki’s humiliation, Amélie has shamed her, and Fubuki proceeds to exact her revenge.

Nothomb (herself the daughter of Belgian diplomats who served in Japan) demonstrates a shrewd understanding of the intricate ways Japanese relationships are made and spoiled. And she has the classic Japanese corporation dead to rights, sketching out the often mindless and capricious hierarchy, the dangers of spontaneity and the condescending superiority with which many Japanese regard Westerners. While at times the level of cruelty in her novel approaches caricature, Nothomb also has compassion for those Japanese who are imprisoned in this system.

At times, Stupeur et Tremblements may seem unduly bleak, and they offer only glimpses of the kindness and decency of those Japanese who do open their hearts to foreigners. Yet each book captures a truth that the foreign suitor might use to find some degree of peace: loving without blinders means accepting the inevitability of distance.

Excerpted from: Susan Chira, Lost in Translation, New York Times, March 25, 2001.